ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands -- Winthrop's defense was working fine; it was its offense that needed a little jump-start in the second half.
Senior forward Taj McCullough provided it, scoring eight of the Eagles' final 14 points as Winthrop held off Illinois-Chicago 72-58 on Friday in the first round of the Paradise Jam tournament at the University of the Virgin Islands Sports and Fitness Center.
Winthrop (2-0) will face Georgia Tech (2-1), which beat Charlotte 82-77 earlier Friday, at 6 p.m. Sunday in the tournament semifinals. The Eagles went 2-1 and lost in the championship game of the tournament in 2004.
"They were trying to drive us all night. We were trying to do everything we could to discourage penetration," said Winthrop coach Randy Peele. "I thought we did a very good job of that, particularly in the first half.
"In the second half, Taj McCullough was really big. We were struggling to score and with a young team when they struggle to score, they don't defend quite as well. We got a boost from Taj when we needed it most."
Winthrop's defense and 3-point efficiency gave the Eagles a 16-point halftime advantage.
The Flames (2-1) cut the margin to 10 before the second half was five minutes old, but Mantoris Robinson's 3-pointer answered for Winthrop. Illinois-Chicago whittled the lead to 10 but could get no closer.
"Every team is going to have their runs and they ended getting one in the first five minutes of the second half," said McCullough, who finished with a career-high 21 points. "My teammates found me open. There were no spectacular plays or anything. I just knocked down my shots."
Peele was far more pleased with his team's defensive effort in this win than in its season-opening victory over Division II Queens.
"We defended without fouling. Against Queens, they shot 34 percent (from the field) and you think we defended well. But we gave them 32 free throws because we fouled too much," he said.
Winthrop held the Flames to 36 percent from the field in the first half and 41.7 percent for the game while shooting 48.1 percent itself. The Eagles also forced 16 turnovers and had eight steals.